Thursday, June 12, 2014

Searching for Denver’s Past

I prefer to write my stories before doing significant research. (Except for Tempest at Dawn, which required advanced study and planning.) When I do the research first, I feel compelled to wedge into the story all of the fascinating facts I discovered, so the research ends up driving the storyline. One of the axioms of writing is to not let your research show. I find it easy to attain this goal by getting the story right first … then adding tidbits of historical information to set the time and place.

Historic Hotels
Oxford Hotel, 1891
I also need to walk the ground of my novels. For me, description is difficult, so it helps to visit the locations used in my novels. I don’t want description to downshift pacing, so I prefer to sprinkle around terse descriptions to give a sense of place similar to how the characters might perceive their surroundings as they went about their business. I also take lots of photographs, so when I write about a place, I can simultaneously view digital photographs of the area.

Jenny’s Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale starts in Denver, Colorado and moves on to Carson City, Nevada. My wife and I decided to spend a long weekend in Denver to add some location color. We had a great time and I got some good details to incorporate into my story.

In 1881, Denver was so fresh and striving that the official name was Denver City. The second half of the name was for those who might have doubted the status of the buildings clustered along the edge of the Great Plains. Nowadays, Denver is a thriving cosmopolitan area and they have removed City from their name. 

Historic hotels
Inter-Ocean Hotel, 1873
We stayed at the historic Oxford Hotel, which opened in 1891. Although this is a decade after my story takes place, the hotel helped me travel back in time. In Jenny’s Revenge, Steve and Virginia stay at the Inter-Ocean Hotel, which used to be located a block away from the Oxford. The Inter-Ocean was owned by Barney L. Ford, an escaped slave who taught himself to read and write. Unfortunately, the Inter-Ocean eventually became a flop-house and was torn down in 1973.

historic hotels
Windsor Hotel, 1880

Another prominent hotel in the story is the Windsor, but it no longer exists either. Well, that’s not exactly right. We were standing on the correct intersection, but I couldn't figure out the proper corner when my wife pointed up. Sure enough, we were standing in the shadow of the Windsor condominium building. Just like Steve and Virginia, my wife and I then walked the three blocks between the long ago demolished hotels.

Thankfully, the Oxford never saw the wrecking ball. The Oxford staff is excellent and they take their historic heritage seriously. It’s a fun stay and the incongruous Cruise Bar is an exceptional experience. The Art Deco bar feels out of place beside the Western motif and Victorian architecture, but it was the first bar in Denver after prohibition, so it has a birthright of its own.

Mizpah Arch from Union Station
Mizpah Arch Leaving Town

I wish I could use the Mizpah Arch in my story, but it wasn’t erected until 1906. This arch stood five stories high and was lit with 2,194 light bulbs. As a passenger exited Denver Union Station, the sign read Welcome. On the reverse side it read Mizpah, which is a Hebrew word expressing an emotional bond between people who are separated. It was a landmark that became obsolete when cars became wider and upkeep expensive. In 1931, the Mizpah Arch became history.

Denver is a fun city with great food. It past is not hard to find. It sits right there in LoDo, lower downtown. This area used to encompass all of metropolitan Denver, but in the hundred and thirty years since my story took place, people and commerce have bulged out to occupy the empty plain that sat to every side of this mile-high city.

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